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Correction: The Misunderstood (Pt. 2)

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

As you read in Part One, I talked a lot about what correction is and what it is not. I genuinely hope that those descriptions made sense, because it seems that in our human brains, our emotions can really over-take us at times and we forget things like logic. I've seen this happen so many times, that this second part of the post is going to have a lot more to do with you, the handler, than your dog. 

I remember the first time I saw true abuse that was labeled as "normal correction."

It was at a hunt-dog training session. The dog was a young Black Lab with a spectacular nose. I remember watching him casting (zig-zagging back and forth, looking for the scent) with such drive and dedication, and I wanted to applaud him.

But, nearby, I could see his handler becoming antsy. He kept yelling at him, "Hunt it up!" and "Where's it at?" I knew that these words could be used to add to the energy of the dog in motion, but that was not the feeling coming off the man. I could hear it in his tone; the way the vibration of the echoing hoarseness in his voice made it gritty and painful clearly showed that this was not encouragement. It was a threat. And the dog knew it, too. He moved faster, frantic, losing his concentration to succumb to fear. Soon, the wind shifted, and whatever scent he had started to catch was gone. Just like that. 

When the recall whistle came and the dog returned obediently - no bumper in mouth - I could feel myself tensing; just like he was. The closer he came, the lower his body went. Soon, he was dragging his belly against the ground. Before he even got to his handler - a grown man of maybe 40 to 45 - the man stepped forward, and used a spare bumper to start beating the dog. He wasn't "correcting" him for not finding the bumper. He was punishing him...out of emotion. He felt embarrassed in front of the others. He was angry. He was frustrated. And he was acting like a savage.  

I believe I was about 8 when I saw this. My dad, who taught me to train, was next to me and I could hear him muttering to himself about what an idiot that man was, and that it was his fault the dog didn't catch the scent of the bumper. 

He was right, of course. It was that man's fault. Instead of encouraging his partner, he frightened him. And instead of resetting the dog's mind to achieve a win at the end, he beat him senseless. 

I still remember this moment very clearly (22 years later). I also remember that, afterward, I felt guilty. Guilty I didn't say something or do something to help that poor dog. But, back then, that wasn't what you did. Trainers were trainers, and each had his own way of doing things. It was kind of a strange code to follow, but it came from the old way of thinking: A dog is property, and a man may do what he likes with his property. (Also, I'm not entirely sure what an 8 year old girl could have achieved, but I'm no longer that 8 year old child...And I'll be damned if I don't have something to say, and something to do about, the misunderstanding of correction in animal behavior.)

I was raised to know that dogs are NOT property. They are our companions; our family; our guardians just as much as we are theirs at times. My dad once told me, "You keep him close to you and take care of him, and he'll always take care of you. You're never going to find a person in the world as loyal as your dog." 

He was right, as I've seen time and again. People can let you down. They can do things to you consciously that hurt you, anger you, and put you down. People can choose to behave in ways that they know are incorrect, inappropriate, and inconsiderate. And, I think because we face this kind of behavior every day, that is why many of us can't separate the same negative communication and feelings we have toward others of our own species from the animals we live beside. 

"He was mad, so he chewed up my shoes!" 

"She just don't listen when I call her! Just wants to do what she wants." 

"He's so rude! He jumps on everyone!" 

When I hear people complaining about their dogs' behavior, it always seems to be the dog's fault and he is emotionally reacting to something. It's his choice to do that, they say. She's feeling this or that, so she acts out in this or that way.

We attach a great deal of emotion to the behaviors of our dogs, expecting them to know the human-method of "right and wrong" while not bothering even a little bit to attempt to understand what they view is right and what they view is wrong (and why)...And there, in that, is where I feel most good-natured people go wrong with their dogs. Somehow, the dog is expected to understand - even if the time to teach him wasn't taken or wasn't given enough of an effort. And yet, they the people don't have to understand anything about their companion. There doesn't really need to be an effort put forth. It's just a dog; it's not that complicated. 

It's that completely unbalanced idea that I find the root of many problems with dogs and their families. It's not because the dog is "bad." It's not because the family isn't good for them. It's simply that the communication was not present from the beginning...It has been filled with emotion, memory, and - sometimes - guilt. 

"I know it's me," I hear sometimes. "I know I'm the one who needs the training." 

I smile when I hear this; not out of happiness or glee. It's out of sympathy and in an attempt to alleviate the guilt and shame I feel coming out of the words and the person speaking them. It takes a lot for a human to admit when they've failed, taken a wrong turn, or made a mistake. Somehow, in our society, admitting to those things is a weakness. In the animal world, submitting to a mistake is survival. It is a necessity. It's how you keep moving, even if one day you felt a little too big for your boots, challenged the alpha and lost -- terribly. You still live. But, you submit to your mistake. You admit the mistake. You show the defeat, and then you move on just as the pack does. There is no grudge. There is no mistrust later. To survive, the pack must be balanced...and in balance, there is no room for past emotion. Only the present. 

Conscious emotion is very unique to humans, and (I personally suspect) some other mammals. That is what I truly admire about our species itself. The ability to feel one thing and think another at the same time is unique to us. But, this can cause conflict within us, no doubt. It can also strengthen us immensely.

Over my life, I've learned that emotion without thought is where I find myself in trouble. Thought without emotion can also lead me toward a lonely and disconnected place. As humans, we must find balance in both these parts of ourselves. And while I'm not learned scholar or philosopher, I can tell you what I know to be true: An animal can teach you this if, over all the human noise you have, you are willing to listen. 

I believe I saw the true and vital importance of that balance of these two parts of self when I was faced with my first major apex predator: A lion named Trust. The range of emotions you feel when staring into the eyes of an animal so large, powerful, and dangerous is not something I can accurately describe. Suffice it to say that there is a part of you that is very old and primal that wakes up and starts screaming, "You're in danger!! You're not at the top of the food chain! You're lunch! Get out!!" 

But, in that moment, the wildly spiking emotional range was not what Trust would react kindly to. It would make him alert and defensive, sensing how unbalanced I was. I knew this because of my profession, and that part of me tried to speak up; leaving the primal, emotional part to begin arguing with that educated, logical part. I knew what to do, behaviorally. I knew what he'd respond to. And I had to make the choice: Balance myself, or face his wrath and all the thousands of years of nature he embodied as the King of Beasts (let me tell you, they truly are)

It may sound a little whimsical, and I don't encourage any of you to go do this any time soon, but I believe this moment was a defining part of myself, as you have your own defining moments. Here is the exact moment I can point to and say: This was where I understood the extreme power of the present - to face Trust for who he was and ignore all the past stories, emotions, and even instinct I knew prior to this particular job. I chose to stand fast in front of 800lbs of raw power. He could have squished me like a bug if he wanted to. But, he didn't. I was balanced. I was no threat to him. I, by his judgement, could live for another day. 

I chose this story to share because it's something that is vital to your understanding of your personal emotions and your reaction to those. You're not facing a lion, but you are facing your dog...A member of the animal kingdom, whose voice and understanding is not all that different from his cousins. You, too, have a choice. Do you react to your emotions when faced with an animal just being an animal? Or do you remember logic, and choose to communicate in a healthy way?

If you watch closely, and listen with more than just your ears, you can hear what an animal has to say. Much like a child, they can show you things that you neglect to notice on your own...They can show you a lot about yourself that you will not find in a mirror. You may not even find this in the feedback of other adult humans. You will, however, always be able to find it in an animal -- and, most of all, a dog. He can tell you when you're too upset to speak or communicate clearly. He knows when you're lost inside, and when he can't lead you back, he is there for you in the silence. When you've behaved badly toward him - taking out frustration and misplaced anger on his child-like mind - he forgives you. He loves you. 

Dogs, unlike any other species, can read us in the most minute movements, scents, and sounds. They were developed to do so over the thousands of years of being at our sides. Did you know a 6 week old puppy will be able to read a physical cue from a human about where to find food, when even an adult Chimpanzee cannot? This is not a learned behavior at 6 weeks old. This is something deep inside the instinctual spectrum of the dog. He is connected to us, and we are to him. 

If you've made it this far into this post, you may be wondering what on earth all this rattling on about emotion and connection has to do with correction. If that's your question, then let me be very clear: It has everything to do with it. 

Correction is a necessary form of communication with your dog. But, in order to achieve that correction, you must be aware of many things within your own self; not just your dog. Emotion has very little place in correction, if any. Blame cannot be present, not even toward yourself in the moment. Punishment does not exist. 

To correct an animal's behavior, you must always do so from a place of balance, strength, and confidence. Without these three things, the communication will be skewed and misunderstood. You will not get the results you desire. Your dog will not begin to understand what the human right-and-wrong lines are. You will just continue to circle around and around in this routine, and the more that happens, the further away you get from what you want and what your dog needs. 

So, if you've found yourself in a place with your pet that it seems like most of your interactions together are negative - he always seems to be up to something bad! - then I'd like to ask you to please stop pointing at the dog. Stop speaking, even. Look at yourself.

What are you feeling?

What has led you to this point?

What does your dog understand of you, if anything? 

Most of all: Is this what you want? 

I don't believe anyone wants a bad relationship - with dogs or otherwise - and to feel the frustration it brings along with it. But, it is very often the case that the solution to this problem is not from the other party; it's in you. When you achieve balance mentally, you will find this can achieve balance emotionally. That, in turn, will lead to very balanced communication in many different situations. The positive will be more powerful. The negative (or "correction") will be much more brief. It won't hurt. It won't last. 

So, I'm asking you that as you learn more about dogs and animal psychology with CC, that you may also open your mind to the idea of learning about yourself, too. It is in that where you will find the most success with your canine companion. Teach him how to behave to human standards, how to get the affection and love he wants, and how to excel in life beside you.

And don't forget: Let him teach you, as well. See how it is he responds to you when you are balanced and kind. Watch how he remains close to you above all others, and see yourself in his eyes -- not as his master, but as his guardian and as his ward. He loves you in the forgiving, all-consuming way only dogs can. Learn from that.

There is no truer mirror of ourselves than the reflection of us in the eyes of our dog. 

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